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Why The Racial Wealth Gap Persists, More Than 150 Years After Emancipation

When one system of economic oppression collapsed, new ones were created to fill the void.
Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray)/Austin History Center

Juneteenth — Emancipation Day 1865 — was supposed to start a new era of black wealth creation. After 12 generations of being subject to slavery’s institutionalized theft, 4 million African Americans were now free to earn incomes and degrees, hold property, weather hard times and pass down wealth to the next generation. They would surely scramble up the economic ladder, if not in one generation then in a few.

Eight generations later, the racial wealth gap is both yawning and growing. The typical black family has just 1/10th the wealth of the typical white one. In 1863, black Americans owned one-half of 1 percent of the national wealth. Today it’s just over 1.5 percent for roughly the same percentage of the overall population. The cause of that stagnation has largely been invisible, hidden by the assumption of progress after the end of slavery and the achievements of civil rights. But for every gain black Americans made, people in power created new bundles of discrimination, largely hidden from sight, that thwarted, again and again, the economic promise of emancipation.

It’s a common misperception that the racial wealth gap is an unfortunate legacy of a bygone era. The myth goes like this: Slavery and Jim Crow bred black poverty. In the 20th century, millions of black families moved out of the South chasing high wages in urban industry. But after a few decades the factories closed, inner cities decayed and a “complex tangle of pathology” emerged in single-parent households and soaring incarceration rates.

If those were the causes, then the solutions seemed evident: end job, housing and school discrimination, enforce civil rights and sprinkle the market with affirmative action. If those things failed to close the gap, then the problem was one of follow-through. If black people would just move to the suburbs, marry, finish school, train up and play by the rules, the gap would vanish.

But that is a myth, concealed in what Ta-Nehisi Coates terms “the quiet plunder.” In the grand narrative of freedom and civil rights, the disadvantages that persist are invisible precisely because people in power continuously innovated new forms of discrimination.

The nation industrialized between the 1870s and the 1910s, but instead of vanishing, the disadvantages confronting black Americans simply morphed. Slavery’s violent theft was replaced by convict leasing, sharecropping and — after a heroic civil rights struggle between 1863 and 1873 — disenfranchisement and legal discrimination, or Jim Crow.